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The virtual reality of Sundance, Day 1: art is money

The inconvenient intersection of technology and culture

Specular Theory

It's hard to imagine what New Frontier, Sundance's program for experimental storytelling, would look like had virtual reality not exploded. In 2016, it's a de facto sub-festival that feels like an extremely highbrow VR meetup, complete with crowded couches full of people passing around headsets alongside the hors d'oeuvres.

Virtual reality isn't precisely a democratic medium at this point, for either the people producing or the people consuming it. But its class system is unstable and at times contradictory. New Frontier's selections can be divided loosely into experiences for a plethora of cheap mobile headsets, and ones for the few high-end Oculus Rift and HTC Vive stations that line the gallery walls. The former category is what's usually described as "VR for the masses," and you don't even need to be at Sundance to see several pieces — they're already available through Samsung's $99 Gear VR and Google Cardboard, which is so cheap it's handed out for free during advertising campaigns. The latter requires hardware that will cost (at least) hundreds of dollars and cannot actually be purchased until later this year.

Yet it's mobile VR, focused heavily on 360-degree video, where the practical barriers to realizing an artistic vision are most obvious. Nothing demonstrates this more aptly than Perspective Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor, a Gear VR-based short film sequence that follows up one of our favorite installations from 2015. Created by filmmakers Rose Troche and Morris May, both Perspective installments play out an emotionally charged situation through the eyes of different characters — Chapter 1 took on the topic of acquaintance rape, and Chapter 2 explores a fictionalized police shooting of a black teenager.

Enjoy a $15,000 camera with your $20 headset

A series of four videos that can be watched in any order, Chapter 2 slowly builds sympathy for each character with shifting points of view. While this occasionally means revealing new information, like whether the boy in question actually carried out the petty theft he's accused of, it's often just subtly highlighting different parts of a scene. Nor is it a simple depiction of how each character is the hero of their own story. A camera following one police officer's perspective, for example, might emphasize just how small the teens he's stopping look. Peering out of one person's eyes, paradoxically, means getting a better look at everyone else.

So it's frustrating that this elegant conceit is shot so roughly that it's at times difficult to focus on what's happening. The footage from Perspective's various jury-rigged cameras is stitched in a way that keeps shifting and tearing; the technology feels like it's fighting the experience every step of the way. A few years ago, just about every VR experience had its bugs. This year, though, Chapter 2 is appearing along things like Felix & Paul's increasingly gorgeous Nomads documentary series and Resonance, a short film that shifts seamlessly through performances by violinist Tim Fain.

Felix & Paul, of course, is a studio whose projects are backed by everyone from Hollywood to Oculus, and Google helped produce Resonance for Cardboard. Professional-level "off the shelf" video arrays cost anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. And we're at a stage where image quality, particularly stitching together different camera shots, makes a huge difference in VR film. Sundance started an entire residency program just to get filmmakers in the same room with Jaunt's 360-degree cameras.

The opposite may be true for Sundance's Rift and Vive experiences. 3D design software is mature and often free, and adding VR support is a technically trivial matter. AAA-level games are still a massively expensive endeavor, and computers that play Rift and Vive games are costly. Still, high-end PCs are cheaper and easier to find than high-end video arrays, and there's a more obvious sponsorship pipeline, which is how a company stereotypically associated with violent hardcore gaming ended up funding Giant, an intimate anti-war short that combines video with digital environments.

World War I retold through the medium of cubes

The experiences also tend to be more stylized, supporting simpler experiments. The Unknown Photographer, an interactive Oculus Rift art project, is about as basic as VR at Sundance gets. Showcasing the work of an enigmatic World War I photographer, it's a series of blocky worlds navigated with an Xbox controller — and I mean this in the sense that there is a chapter literally composed of barely textured floating cubes. Though the project didn't always click for me, there were times where the creators used their low-poly aesthetic perfectly, producing shadowy, cavernous landscapes broken up by melancholy black-and-white images.

Conversely, pure technical breakthroughs can prove disappointing, even if they open the door to great future options. Rendering studio 8i showed up with a series of vignettes based on a new way to do sophisticated motion capture, hotly anticipated by people like VR journalism veteran Nonny de la Peña. It produces startlingly realistic 3D models of moving, talking actors that can be added to computer-generated environments. Here, though, they are used to perfectly simulate getting stuck at a cocktail party with someone who won't stop telling supposedly fascinating anecdotes about themselves.

One cost of exploring new technological frontiers is limiting who can access certain kinds of art and artistry. The consolation, hopefully, is that it also takes us closer to a time when anyone will be able to make flawless immersive films or walk around in virtual space. At Sundance, a fantasy land of Samsung après-ski lounges and festival-themed Cardboard headsets, the point is probably still a little moot.